Ricky Rubio: Not Like Anybody Else

After the long awaited arrival of Spanish wunderkind Ricky Rubio, it's finally fun to be a Timberwolves fan again. Rubio seems to energize his teammates with his crisp passing and spectacular court vision, and has drawn rave reviews from NBA analysts, coaches, and opposing players. Anyone who has watched a significant amount of Timberwolves baskeball this season will agree that the Timberwolves simply play better with Rubio on the floor, a sentiment supported by statistics: Rubio's +/- of +48 leads the team by a wide margin.

But just how good has Ricky Rubio been? And how good can he become? Who should we be comparing him to? In an attempt to answer these questions, I decided to use the Basketball-Reference player comparison tool to compare Rubio's start to five other historically great point guards. I tried to choose players who, for the most part, have a similar skill-set to Rubio (Derrick Rose being the exception). I decided on Rose (I couldn't resist, given their upcoming match-up on Tuesday), Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, John Stockton, and Chris Paul. I then selected a season from early in each of their careers to use in comparison to the beginning of Rubio's rookie season. I tried to compensate for the differing ages that each player began playing in the NBA. 2011-12 is Rubio's age-21 season, and I also used the age-21 season of Rose (2nd NBA season), Paul (2nd season), and Kidd (rookie season); Nash and Stockton entered the league at a later age and didn't immediately get significant minutes, so I chose Stockton's age-23 sophomore campaign and Nash's third year in the league, during which he was 24. Imperfect methodology, to be sure, but it should suit this exercise well enough. Before we move on to the numbers, I'll remind everyone (myself included) to keep in mind that Rubio has played just eight games, a very small sample size, and his statistics could change drastically over the course of the season.

I'll start with the traditional stats, on a per 36 minutes basis (the full basketball-reference page, with easier to read tables, can be found here):

Rk         Player  Season Age   FG  FGA  FG%  3P 3PA  3P%  FT FTA  FT%  TRB  AST STL TOV  PTS
1      Jason Kidd 1994-95  21  4.5 11.6 .385 0.9 3.5 .272 2.6 3.7 .698  5.8  8.2 2.0 3.4 12.4
2      Steve Nash 1998-99  24  3.2  8.9 .363 1.4 3.7 .374 1.1 1.3 .826  3.2  6.2 1.0 2.4  8.9
3      Chris Paul 2006-07  21  5.8 13.3 .437 0.8 2.2 .350 4.5 5.5 .818  4.3  8.7 1.8 2.5 16.9
4    Derrick Rose 2009-10  21  8.4 17.2 .489 0.2 0.8 .267 3.2 4.2 .766  3.7  5.9 0.7 2.7 20.3
5     Ricky Rubio 2011-12  21  4.6  9.6 .483 1.1 2.2 .500 2.2 3.2 .700  5.0  9.8 1.4 4.2 12.6
6   John Stockton 1985-86  23  4.2  8.7 .489 0.0 0.3 .133 3.2 3.8 .839  3.3 11.3 2.9 3.1 11.7

Judging by these statistics, Rubio fits in well with this elite group of point guards. A few numbers do stand out, both on the positive and negative side of the coin. One of Rubio's biggest question marks entering the season was his shooting, but so far he's been excellent, hitting 50 % of his three point attempts and nearly 48 % of his shots overall. Both of those numbers seem likely to come down as the season progresses, but it should be noted that Rubio has rarely taken a poor shot, and most of his three point attempts have been uncontested.
While Rubio's excellent shooting has come as a pleasant surprise, there is some cause for concern with his high turnover rate. Through his first eight games, he has the worst turnover rate of this group of players. There have been some bad decisions and misplaced passes among his turnovers, but Rubio has also been hit with a significant number of turnovers that were at least partially the fault of his (generally inept) teammates. Frankly, Rubio's supporting cast is poor, and too often they have been unprepared to receive the basketball. Rubio should know who he's passing to, of course, but with more practice time and a better understanding of his teammate's strengths and weaknesses, the high turnover rate should fall to a more reasonable number. The turnovers would be more concerning if Rubio was playing out of control or losing the ball while dribbling, neither of which seems to be an issue.

Let's take a look at some advanced metrics:

Rk       Player  Season Age  PER  TS% eFG% ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% STL%  TOV% USG% ORtg DRtg WS/48
1    Jason Kidd 1994-95  21 15.1 .471 .426  5.8 11.9  8.7 33.2  2.9  20.4 19.0  103  109  .066
2    Steve Nash 1998-99  24 10.9 .471 .441  2.8  7.3  5.0 27.2  1.6  19.9 15.1   99  108  .037
3    Chris Paul 2006-07  21 22.0 .537 .466  2.6 11.3  6.9 41.3  2.7  13.5 23.1  116  106  .179
4  Derrick Rose 2009-10  21 18.6 .532 .495  2.6  8.7  5.7 30.3  1.0  12.5 27.2  106  109  .100
5   Ricky Rubio 2011-12  21 17.5 .574 .542  1.0 13.7  7.5 44.6  2.0  27.4 18.5  107   99  .157
6 John Stockton 1985-86  23 17.0 .566 .491  1.9  8.1  5.0 41.8  3.8  23.2 15.1  113  103  .146

Rubio again stacks up very well against this group of current and future Hall of Famers. He leads the group in true shooting percentage and esitmated field goal percentage, vaults to the front of the leaderboard in assist percentage, and is second only to Chris Paul in win shares per 48 minutes, a metric that attempts to assess a player's total contribution to team victories (league average is around .100).

One number that is especially interesting and encouraging is Rubio's defensive rating. Rubio so far rates as the most effective defensive player of the group, something I would not have predicted entering the season but am not all that surprised to see after watching him defend for the first few games. Rubio has moved his feet well and generally kept the opposing player from getting to the hoop. He was especially effective against the explosive John Wall, where he used his quick feet and high basketball IQ to anticipate where Wall was headed and beat him to the spot. Rubio drew one charge and could have had at least one more. Rubio lacks speed and strength, but he seems to make up for it with his length, intellignece, and fundamentals. It will be interesting to see if he rates out as a plus defender as the season progresses. The upcoming match-up against Derrick Rose, perhaps the strongest, most explosive point guard in the NBA, should tell us more about Rubio's defensive abilities. What does seem clear is that Rubio wants to defend, which is more than can be said for some NBA players.

Rubio has been compared to Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, but I think a more accurate comparison is to John Stockton. Like Rubio, Stockton came into the NBA as an excellent passer who was hesitant to shoot. Indeed, in his first three seasons, Stockton attempted just 65 three point shots, making only 11. Clearly, he began to work on this part of his game, and developed into an excellent three point shooter, finishing with a career average over 38 %. Rubio has reportedly put in significant time working on his jump shot, and hopefully can develop into a three point shooter with similar success to Stockton. From 1987 to 1995 Stockton led the league in assists nine consecutive years, combining with power forward Karl Malone in a famous pick and roll set. The comparison to Rubio and Kevin Love is an easy enough one to make, and lends hope to a bright future for the Timberwolves. Stockton also saw his turnover percentage drop throughout his career, something I think we'll see from Rubio as he adjusts to the league and to his teammates.

The season is young, of course, and Ricky will endure his fair share of growing pains, but I wanted to put in context just how well he has performed thus far. For a 21-year-old point guard in his rookie season, Rubio's current performance compares favorably with some of the all-time greats during similar stages of their careers. It became something a running joke when, after being drafted in 2009, Rubio famously answered a question about which player he most resembles by stating, "I'm Ricky Rubio, I'm not like anybody else". He just might prove to be right.


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